TRIGGER WARNING: If you are having suicidal thoughts, click here for expert advice and for links to support groups, medical help and hotlines.
“I slowly opened my eyes, the place was filled with police officers and one was gently talking to me as I gained consciousness.”
Chris Haill, 54, is retelling the story of his suicide attempt earlier this year. After living with depression for almost four decades, he made his second attempt at ending his life on January 2, in Dubai. The first was in 2007.
“The pain was too much and I couldn’t take any more,” he recalls. “I thought everyone, including my son, would be better off without me. Of course, I know now that’s not true and I’m thankful everyday that I’ve had this second chance.”
Haill is not alone. Statistics from the World Health Organisation report that almost 800,000 people die by suicide every year, globally. That’s one human life gone every four seconds. And it’s estimated 20 times that number make suicide attempts.
As we approach World Mental Health Day on October 10, what these statistics can’t show are the numbers of people having suicidal thoughts, known as suicidal ideation. These are people who can be helped with the right support.
In the past, living in the UAE has come presented particular difficulties for those seeking help, as suicide is still illegal. Until recently, suicide attempts were punished with six months in prison or a fine of up to Dh5,000, or in some cases both.
This is changing though, as police services adopt a more supportive approach that includes providing and signposting free psychological help. One such programme is the Window of Hope initiative at Al Barsha Police Station in Dubai, where punishment is being replaced with medical support.
“The initiative aims to help people who suffer psychological pressure and have problems, which lead them to attempt suicide,” Brigadier Abdul Raheem Bin Shafe’ei, director of the Al Barsha Police Station, told Gulf News. “Officers sit with the person to provide social support, while a doctor works towards rehabilitation. It is part of the Dubai Police strategy to spread happiness in the emirate.”
And this more compassionate approach is exactly what Chris Haill experienced. When he posted a ‘goodbye’ message on the British Dads in Dubai Facebook group just before his suicide attempt, a member called the police. They got to him just in time.
“The person who called them was unsure at first because he didn’t want to get me into trouble, what with the law as it is,” explains Haill, who is now raising awareness about suicide prevention and helping others living with mental illness to find the right help. “But the police were amazing. They took me to the hospital, where I received medication and counselling over the next few days. The officers stayed with me during that time, they then moved me into a hotel, and even assisted me with getting a flight back to the UK to visit my family.”
The process of decriminalizing suicide is just one way the UAE government is supporting those living with suicidal ideation. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Health and Prevention established a dedicated hotline (tel: 8004673) to respond to those dealing with psychological concerns and anxiety. The support line is available from 9am to 9pm daily and offers advice and signposting to other free-of-cost services and hospital support.
“Had the hotline been in place and Laura been aware of it, she could have reached out at that terrible time when she had thoughts of suicide and perhaps only minutes to live,” he explains. “Talking to a stranger, someone independent of family and friends, someone trained in coaxing the caller off the edge.”
Clarke’s words highlight a valid point, about the need to spread awareness of the existence of the hotline and other available free services. While researching for this article, I found the helpline number was very much lost among the search results of private medical hospitals advertising their services.
“If I had one request of the UAE government, it would be to make sure the messages that ‘You’re not alone’ and ‘Help is freely available and easily accessible’ is widely known across all sectors of society and that regular campaigns are conducted during the year, right from the school classroom to billboards and on social media,” says Clarke.
Dani Hakim, co-founder of the employee wellbeing programme and community support group Safe Space agrees.
“I think there are lots of resources out there, but you have to dig hard to find them and when you are already feeling overwhelmed, that lack of clarity can cause even more stress.” Hakim lived with her own experiences of depression and anxiety until she sought help and she thinks the workplace could be a good place to spread the word.
“A very recent CIPD Middle East survey showed that just over half of employers are finding it challenging to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees since the lockdown began,” she explains. “Working from home may have given employees more flexibility, but it is likely that they have also been battling social isolation and losing any sense of work-life balance.”
It’s an issue that Paul Firth, managing director at ICAS MENA, which provides employment assistance programs (EAP) to more than 150 corporate employers in the region, has also seen.
“Suicidal ideation is generally associated with depression, anxiety and other mood disorders,” he explains. “Unfortunately and yet not surprisingly, they are two of the top three presenting issues to our EAP in the Middle East region.”
It is difficult for anyone to know just how prevalent suicide and attempted suicide is in the UAE, says Firth. ICAS MENA manages around five to six suicide cases a year, but acknowledges there will be more, as many people don’t have access to an EAP.
This is why free-of-cost support groups can literally be lifesavers. Darkness Into Light (DIL) is a volunteer community group that provides 24-hour guidance. It’s also coaching people, including frontline workers such as the police, to recognise those who might be having thoughts of suicide, partnering with the global SafeTALK training initiative.
“Suicide is high in the UAE and rates of depression are increasing yearly, so, it’s important to provide the community with these life-saving skills,” says Laura Brennan, director of therapeutic services at DIL. “This training is crucial in learning how to identify suicidal risk in friends, family and co-workers, and knowing what to do to help them connect to professional support services in emergencies. Many people tend to miss, dismiss or avoid signs of suicide risk because of stigma, fear or not wanting to be involved. This training provides simple and practical steps that give you the confidence to help keep a person safe.”
While the young, the elderly and men are some of the most vulnerable, “any person at any time can be having thoughts of suicide.”
One person who is all too aware of the ‘at-risk’ male group is Michael Leonard, founder of male self-help support group ANYMAN. Leonard, who lives with acquired depression and has experienced suicidal ideation, says: “Men are definitely a high-risk group. Research in countries like the USA, UK and Australia highlight that men are three to four times more likely to be successful in their suicide attempt. Reasons for this are most likely due to male pressures and reluctance to discuss what’s really going on due to shame, inability to express emotions and disconnection with others.”
Leonard set up ANYMAN as a way to restore that missing sense of connection.
“We meet weekly in a safe, honest and compassionate environment, creating the feeling that the man has someone to talk to and is supported by others,” he explains. “There is a big stigma around mental wellbeing, especially in men, and in the melting pot of cultures that exist in the UAE, it is magnified. Awareness needs to be around the causes of suicide, such as loss, depression, anger, social isolation, substance abuse and feelings of helplessness, as well as eliminating the negative connotations around how mental wellbeing is perceived.”
Paul Firth thinks a good place to start easing the stigma would be for medical insurance policies to provide easier access to psychological counselling.
“Currently, to access any psychological support you have to see a psychiatrist first,” he explains. “Totally inappropriate clinically, and the stigma is likely to put people off. While statistically one in three of us will experience some form of mental health illness, with early intervention by a psychologist, most of us will never need to see a psychiatrist, except in the most extreme cases where it is likely medication will be required.”
But while he thinks there’s more that can be done, the UAE is making progress, says Firth.
“We are many steps forward from where we were 10 years ago, or even two years ago,” he says. “Covid has helped raise awareness of mental health and psychological wellbeing and the major impact it can have on us all.”
If you, or someone you know, may be thinking about suicide please see the advice below on how to get help.
For medical help and emergencies:
Mental Support line: 8004673
In cases of emergency visit Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital مستشفى الأمل
in Al Aweer, Dubai in person. You can also call or Whatsapp: 045192500
Find them here: https://goo.gl/maps/QB5xR6gMXfTtrLwh9
For advice and help:
Darkness Into Light: www.dil.ae
Dubai Community Health Centre: www.dubaicommunityhc.com
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.